A family was furious after they say their kindergarten student was “lunch shamed” at school. Disgusted with the district’s policy, they demanded change.
Anya Howard, a 6-year-old kindergarten student at Southwest Elementary School in Greenwood, Indiana, just wanted to eat lunch on a Friday afternoon. Instead, she got “lunch shamed,” according to her grandfather, who’s since urged district administrators to review their cafeteria policies.
When Anya went to pay for the warm meal on her tray, the cafeteria aide discovered she only has 10 cents in her account, which wasn’t enough money to pay for the $2.25 lunch. Rather than give the child a reminder to have money added to her account, Anya was sent on a “walk of shame.”
The cafeteria aide made the 6-year-old girl return the tray of hot food and go to the back of the lunch line to wait for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “They told me I needed to give my food back,” Anya recalled. As she did as she was told, she had to walk past approximately 20 students, some of whom knew she had a payment issue.
Several classmates made comments about it and also laughed at Anya as she walked by on her way to the back of the line, leaving her upset. “They were laughing at us, and they got more food than us,” Anya said, referring to herself and another child who didn’t have enough money for their lunch.
After hearing what his granddaughter was put through, Dwight Howard, a former teacher, felt it was not only humiliating but unnecessary. “When she was talking to me about it, she was more than ‘sad,'” Dwight recalled. “I mean, that’s embarrassing for a little 6-year-old.”
The school sent a note home that same day, explaining that Anya’s cafeteria account had only a 10 cent balance, instructing her family to add more funds. This was after the lunchroom incident, and according to Dwight, Anya’s family hadn’t been previously alerted to her low balance.
“They waited until there was a dime left, denied her the opportunity to eat the lunch that she had [been served and tried to pay for] and then she had to go to the end of the line to wait for a PB&J,” Dwight said, furious that his granddaughter was humiliated. The response from the school didn’t make things any better either.
According to Greenwood Community Schools Superintendent Dr. Kent DeKoninck, parents are sent payment reminders when lunch accounts have $5 remaining. “It is not an uncommon occurrence for multiple students to be served the alternate lunch on any given day,” DeKoninck also said in a statement. “Any time this happens, our staff looks to handle all of these as discreetly as possible,” he added. “We do allow elementary students to charge two hot meals before receiving the alternate meal.”
Dwight was adamant that didn’t happen in Anya’s case. According to the grandfather, there was never a $5 alert issued for Anya’s account. Instead, he only received a note after she was denied lunch when her account balance had fallen to 10 cents. She also hadn’t been allowed to charge any hot meals before being forced to receive the alternate meal.
Furthermore, a half-page note stapled to the back of the payment reminder Anya brought home that Friday afternoon said Southwest Elementary would no longer allow students to charge any meals starting the following Monday.
“If there is not enough money in your child’s account to cover the entire meal, they will be receiving a peanut butter sandwich and a milk,” the correspondence to parents from the school said, adding that accounts would not be allowed to go into the negative any longer.
Greenwood’s cafeteria policy isn’t much different than those of many suburban districts, which call for students to be served an “alternate meal” when their individual cafeteria funds dip into the red. According to federal guidelines, these alternate meal policies are allowed as long as it is spelled out for the parents.
The question is, when should staff be allowed to deploy common sense? Policies are black and white, but real-life situations seldom are. This child already had the hot meal in her hands, meaning it couldn’t be served to another student due to food handling and hygiene concerns. In other words, it was going to be tossed out, meaning the cafeteria was losing out on money for that meal either way.
Isn’t it better for the hot food to be in a hungry child’s tummy rather than in the trash? It’s understandable that the cafeteria doesn’t want to lose money, but throwing food away isn’t achieving that. If a child can’t have the hot lunch unless they have money to pay, schools should check accounts before the food is served. Once it’s given to the student, they should be allowed to charge the meal because no one comes out ahead when the food is thrown in the garbage after it’s been served then taken away.